Joint position of rectors: do not sever ties with Israel

In an opinion piece submitted to Trouw, fifteen rectors of Dutch universities state that they will not sever ties with Israeli institutions. “We will only consider it if the central government imposes it or strongly advises us to do so.”

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Over the past few weeks, there have been demonstrations and occupations at universities. Students and staff demand that collaborations with Israeli institutions be severed to avoid complicity in the violence against the Palestinian population in Gaza.  

“The horrendous attack on October 7, the uncertain fate of the Israeli hostages, the ever-escalating spiral of violence against Palestinian civilians: the images shock us daily,” the rectors write on Trouw’s opinion page

But according to the universities, that is no reason to stop collaborating with academics in Israel. They argue that academic freedom must be preserved, which they describe as “the freedom to be able to research, think and debate, even when it clashes with our deepest convictions and those of others.” 

Multiple viewpoints

The protesters’ perspective is one of many, say the rectors, while universities should allow for multiple viewpoints. “There are countless ways in which the dreadful conflict now taking place in Gaza is viewed, considered and interpreted by academics, politicians, citizens and people involved: it is rooted in a history that goes back much further than October 7, 2023 or even May 15, 1948. The members of our academic community who are making themselves heard through protests represent but one perspective on the conflict.” 

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, ties with Russian universities were severed immediately. A fact protesters often refer to. ‘Swift action was taken then, so why not now?’ they reason. But the situation with Israel is not comparable, feel the rectors. “We will never sever ties with an entire country in any case. We will only consider this if the central government imposes it or strongly advises us to do so, as was the case with Russia.” 

Unwanted technology transfer

On March 4, 2022, Dutch universities announced an immediate suspension of collaborations with educational and knowledge institutions in Russia and Belarus. “They are doing this following the urgent appeal by the Minister of Education, Culture and Science,” read the statement at the time. According to the letter Dijkgraaf wrote to the universities back then, “unwanted technology transfer” was one of the reasons for terminating collaboration. 

However, in the case of Israel, outgoing Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf is actually calling on Dutch universities to continue collaboration, as he said in late May. “The biggest critics of the Israeli government attend those universities,” Dijkgraaf said recently on current affairs program Buitenhof. 

Institutional autonomy

According to TU/e Rector Silvia Lenaerts, one of the arguments for ending cooperation with Russian institutions was the fact that the universities there were overwhelmingly in support of Putin’s war policy. ‘That does not bear witness to institutional autonomy,’ according to Lenaerts.

In this article, the American newspaper The Washington Post describes in detail how Russian universities embrace Putin’s policy and do not tolerate internal opposition. Although Israeli universities are accused of serving as propaganda channels for the Netanyahu government, as argued by The Rights Forum, academic freedom in Israel is allegedly not under threat. Lenaerts: “So the point is that we don’t want to boycott an entire country because then we would also be isolating critical minds.”

The difference is political

In an interview with regional newspaper De Limburger, Rianne Letschert, President of the Executive Board of Maastricht University, was asked about the difference between 2022 and now. “The difference is political,” says Letschert. “They shouldn’t have done that with Russia either. There was an instruction from the government at that time to cut ties with the Russian sector. We protested against that. I don’t think it’s the government’s job to make such a decision.”

According to Letschert, this political interference generates arbitrariness: “With this, we have set a precedent we shouldn’t want. This is a slippery slope. It means that every new minister has the power to determine with whom an academic sector collaborates. Perhaps our protests weren’t loud enough at the time.”


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